Thursday, August 02, 2007

Travel Journal (18)--New Friends

With Luarsab and Ioana at the New Taste Restaurant

This trip to Georgia opened new doors for me, for I joined up with a tour group. I was a little apprehensive about it, as I have always traveled alone. Traveling solo never bothered me, and in fact, I have always enjoyed the flexibility and spontaneity. And somehow, people you meet are more inclined to talk with you if you are not part of a herd. I ascribed to the common characterization of tour groups: herds of people in shorts, sneakers and name tags, being led around by an ill-informed guide, completely insulated from whatever it was they were supposed to be experiencing. But then I met this group.

With Nadezdha and John G. at the "House of Beans" Restaurant

The tour proposed to visit remote Orthodox monasteries in eastern Georgia, particularly in the Kakheti region. Along the way, we were to learn about Georgian liturgical chant, as well as folk music. We would visit with priests and monastic communities, attend liturgies, as well as spend time with Bishop David, the Metropolitan of Alaverdi. Two days were to be spent in the high Caucasus, near the Russian border. At night, the tour was to take part in the quintessential Georgian experience, the supra. This is certainly new territory, travel-wise. There would be no danger of bumping into other tour groups anywhere along the way.

With Pamela and Patrick at Prospero's

Our two guides are particularly well-suited to pull this off. First, there is our exuberant and enthusiastic Georgian, Luarsab. He is a historical consultant to the Patriarchate in Tbilisi, the author of numerous articles, as well as a contributor to the recent Lives of the Georgian Saints. He is an expert on Georgian chant, and sings in 2 or 3 ensembles himself. Luarsab teaches classes to young people at the Cathedral in Tbilisi. He is a master tamada of the supra. His family is in the restaurant business, so he knows where to find the best of Georgian cuisine. Finally, everyone seems to know Luarsab--wherever you go, whether in the city, or the most remote monastery, being with Luarsab is an open door to whatever is happening. John G. is the other host, and the actual organizer of the tour. He is an American, but a Georgian-in-the-making. John is quiet and soft-spoken, with a slow and easy manner--the perfect counterpoint to Luarsab's exuberance. A doctoral student at Princeton, he has made Georgian chant his particular area of study. His fascination with and love for the culture is evident. A couple of years ago, he even bought a home in Sighnaghi. Along the journey, he became Orthodox. John speaks the language and sings Georgian beautifully. He is a most remarkable young man. Together, John and Luarsab made an exceptional team. In addition, Maia, a lovely Georgian musicologist at the Conservatory in Tbilisi assisted for much of the trip. I may or may not travel with a group in the future. But I do know that these three have set the bar very high if I do.

With John H. and Andrew at the New Taste Restaurant

The rest of us made for a pretty diverse group. There were 11 Americans, 2 Australians, 2 Romanians and 1 Bulgarian. The shakedown by religion was 8 Orthodox, 5 Lutherans, 1 Quaker and 2 others. We ranged in age from 72 down to 22 years old. We came from Delaware, Minnesota, D.C., New York, Vermont and Texas. I was something of a novelty, being the only one from a "red state." I realized early on, that my blue state friends tended more towards cobalt than robin's egg blue. No problem here, as I was largely in sympathy.

With Michael and Patricia at the New Taste Restaurant

Pamela and Patrick were our Aussies, though he an Irishman by way of London. They live in Perth, where Patrick, now retired, practiced as an attorney. These two are simply delightful--gracious representatives of the very best in our Anglo-Irish culture. I found myself listening carefully when either of them spoke. You just know that whatever they said was worth hearing. Patrick has a rare talent, that quickly emerged at our supras. Everyone is encouraged to make a toast during the course of the feast. The subject matter is set by the tamada of the supra, and all (in theory) are expected to confine their toasts to the specified theme. Patrick turned out to be a toastmaster par excellence. We came to eagerly anticipate the next recitation. It might be "How St. Patrick Drove the Snakes out of Ireland," or it might be about a play where the dead man sits up at his wake and says "The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, for you and not for me," or "Rafferty's Pig," or some recitation from Lord Byron. Towards the end of trip, Patrick had a nasty spell with his heart, and spent a couple of days in the hospital. But this did not keep him down. Our last supra was capped with his rousing rendition of "Transplant Calypso." Patrick had a remarkable ability to deftly twist the subject matter a bit, so that his oration seemed to naturally flow from the specified subject. I suspect he was one gifted attorney!

With the Minnesotans--Lila, Gary and Celia

John H. and Andrew were our 2 young cousins. John is a purposeful young man. A Marine Corps veteran, he served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He didn't have to go--he was on the college track, but felt compelled to serve. And he is exceeding bright, having recently been accepted at Brown University. John simply has incredible credibility for a young man his age. Whenever we would stop, John would often launch off in a different direction, exploring on his own, at his own pace. He is very much his own man. At the end of the tour, he was to return home for a few days, then fly off to South American to hike to Machu Picchu and visit Lake Titicaca. Expect to hear about this young man in the future. I predict he will go far. Andrew, John G.'s brother, is a student at the University of Vermont. He is a talented, engaging young man. Those of us of a certain age, shall we say, are flattered when young people take an interest in us, and are at ease in conversing with us. Andrew is a such a young man. Right after the above picture of him was taken, he stood up and sang all the verses to "The City of New Orleans." And well done, I might add. From Georgia, Andrew was going on to Istanbul, then Sofia, then Belgrade, and finally Switzerland, I believe.

With Frederica at Jvari Church, Mskheta

Michael and Patricia were our newlyweds. In fact, this tour was actually their honeymoon. Like Patrick and Pamela, he is Orthodox and she is in the process of converting. They were enthusiastic about all things Orthodox, and were enthralled with what Georgia had to offer.

With Dmitru and Nadeszdha at the New Taste Restaurant

Dmitru and Ioana were our representatives from Romania. He was a professor at the University of Bucharest, who later became connected with UNESCO in that country. This association allowed him to leave Romania in 1989, a few months before the fall of Communism. He worked for UNESCO in Paris for a number of years, and still resides there, working as a consultant. Dmitru has a deep love of nature, and is a most intrepid hiker--usually well in front of those of us much younger. The quiet and lovely Ioana is Dmitru's daughter. From Paris, she went to the US for college and has remained in the country. She is currently a Professor of Linguistics at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. She speaks seven languages herself, I believe. Like John H., Ioana would often drift off from the crowd to get her own perspective on things. She is astute and gracious, a joy to travel with.

With Jay and Richard at Prospero's

Frederica is John G.'s and Andrew's mother. In the context of this trip, she was something of a nurturing, earth mother figure for all of us. She is as proud of her sons as they are devoted to her. Frederica teaches at a Waldorf School in Vermont, but she had previously taught in both Japan and Greece. We had some great talks while on the bus. Frederica realizes that the first rule of being a good conversationalist is to be a good listener.

What can I say about our New Yorkers, Richard and Jay? I really bonded with these guys. Richard is an audio bibliographer at Columbia University. Jay is the long-time pastor of a ECLU church in Queens. And then Jay, despite his long years in Manhattan, has Texas roots. So, we had lots to talk and laugh about. Richard's abiding passion is horticulture. He maintains a hidden garden on the Upper West Side. He could identify any flower, along any trail in Georgia. Jay, as befits a preacher, is glib and quick on his feet, so to speak, in any conversation. I soon learned to appreciate their dry, dry sense of humor. We quickly detected in the other a kindred sarcastic spirit.

It is true what they say about Minnesotans. (No, not the accent!) They are simply the nicest, most decent people anywhere. Gary and Lila are husband and wife. Celia is their best friend--all from Minneapolis. Gary is a professional musicologist, the editor of a scholarly journal of music history. Gary and Lila have been simply everywhere. You name it, they've been there. They are the best kind of travelers: interested in everything, ready for anything, unfazed by any minor disruption. They are true citizens of the world. Celia is in the same category. More so than anyone else on the trip, Celia and I were on the same wavelength, so to speak, in our perceptions, observations, and humor. I enjoyed my conversations with my new Minnesotan friends--whether it be religion, politics or our distinctive regional peculiarities. They were intrigued by my unique method of washing clothes on long travels. I pack lightly--everything I carry must fit in my backpack--so I carry fewer clothes than most. Simply toss some clothes into the bottom of the shower stall and stomp around on them while showering. Apply a bar of soap to the underarms if needed. When you finish showering, simply ring out and drape over whatever is available. When you come back in that night, voila, the clothes should just about be dry. Before long, they were old hands at this.

And then there is Nadezdha, our effusive, free-spirited Bulgarian. Tall and elegant, usually with flowing scarf, Nadezdha was given to the dramatic gesture or pose. Someone later said that wherever we were, she always "found the light." Nadezdha searched for the essence of a particular place. And I think she usually found it. She is a doctoral student in Anthropology at Princeton. Her studies have taken her all over the world--from a Berber camp in the Moroccan desert, to Central America, where of all things, she taught women how to draw Coptic icons of the Virgin Mary. In addition to Bulgarian, she speaks English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German.--and, she was picking up on Georgian. Nadezdha is devoutly Orthodox, and interested in my own connection with her native Bulgaria and its significance to me. After Georgia, she was returning home to Bulgaria for a few days, and then off to Cuba.

I learned so much from all of them. I hope our paths cross again.


Anonymous said...

Looks like a great, and diverse group; and good to hear it wasn't like the caricature!

cdgilpin said...

Hi there, I found your blog linked through other Orthodox blogs and must give you props for having one of the most interesting blogs of a travel/ historical/ theological theme around!. Thanks for writing such interesting reflections and anecdotes!

John said...

ian, a great group indeed.

cd, you are very kind. This blog allows me to indulge my passion for travel, history and theology. Thanks again.

David Bryan said...

What a great group of people! How great that you were all able to meld together and have a truly engaging experience.

On a side note -- you may have already heard, but our good friends Zac and Lindsey will be moving out to your neck of the woods, so they will be attending when y'all have liturgy, while making the now-loooong trek back here about once a month. This Sunday was their last regular one with us.

John said...

David Bryan--Yep, Zac emailed me about the move back in June. I do sympathize with your loss there at St. B's, but cannot tell you how excited we all are down here to have them with us.